Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review Time: Downing the Devil in Diablo III Beta

In this installment of Review Time, we cover the open beta weekend that Blizzard is having for Diablo III.  Mass Effect 2 is coming along nicely, as the team is almost assembled and the real battles against the Collectors are beginning.  However, first we must take a sidebar to dance with the devil.


Diablo III releases on May 15th, which will mark 12 years since Diablo II hit the shelves.  All I remember about Diablo II is that it eventually was one of the facotrs in my first college roommate going back to the farm to be a farmer rather than complete his engineering degree.  He would play the game all night, and some of my other friends were also invested heavily.  I played the game late and did not group with others, which made the experience not so awesome.  I have played through the first act or two of Diablo II a few times, but always lose interest.

So count me among those not so interested in buying Diablo III.  However, I was not interested in RTS games or Starcraft either, and I'm liking SC2.  So when Blizzard opens the doors for a free weekend trial, might as well give this a run.

If you do jump in this weekend, you will suffer through the normal beta phase problems.  Downloading can be a bear, then actually getting into the game can be an issue as well thanks to some artifical caps put on the stress test as the weekend goes along.  Plus, the game is laggy/glitchy/buggy at spots.  Although that is annoying when clicking around like a fool in battle, the game only disconnected or broke twice in the entirety of the beta (about 1.5 hours of gameplay).  That's not bad, especially during a server load stress test.

Unlike Diablo II, there are five fairly well defined choices to start out with in Diablo III for a class to play.  Not knowing if I would find a friend online, I grabbed the tank-esque Barbarian for this run through the beta.

Ekaterinae as a half-naked beef-eating beast of a woman.  Well, you have to start somewhere...

My buddy Tom (who plays Starcraft very seriously) and Dave B. were online when I finally got into the server, and Tom joined me almost right away.  Tom had played through the beta before the open weekend and was trying the Wizard class for the first time.  A tank Barbarian and a ranged Wizard make for a good team in most games, so we got right to it.

The first item of interest are the graphics.  The world is far more nuanced than the simple world in Diablo II, but the game is not graphically impressive, at least on my setup.  Tweaking the settings could bring more to the table, but this does not seem like much of a step beyond Starcraft 2, if at all.  Somewhat disappointing, but there's perhaps not a ton that can be done with top-down games like this.

The gameplay itself has not changed from the formula that made Diablo II successful.  You hack and slash through crypts and cathedrals on the hunt for better and better gear.  The game is 20% exploration, 20% strategy, and 60% click-click-click-click-click ad nauseam.  You click to move constantly, then click to attack, then occasionally mix in a button press to do a special ability, then click some more.  Better find a comfortable mouse, because the clicks will be endless for the hours you end up putting into this game.

The beta is cut from the first act of the game and therefore is not terribly difficult.  However, the boss fights that come up do require a bit of finesse, which is a good sign.  Simply hacking away for hours on end can get mighty dull after the first couple of hours.  Of course, as a Barbarian, hacking away is what you do best.  It is difficult to judge from the preliminary phases of the game, but enough abilities are added early to make it seem like the game will become a bit more like Warcraft as you progress, waiting on cooldowns for major abilities while whittling down enemy health bars.

One of the strengths of Diablo III is the ability to play with or without friends, with the enemies becoming more difficult as party members join the fight.  On the more difficult level settings, I figure that the unique mix of talents a party of 3-4 players brings is probably necessary because a one-dimensional approach is probably difficult to succeed with.  However, that balancing is probably one of the most difficult things Blizzard faces, as the game must be beatable by any number of players on all difficulty levels (this isn't Dark Souls after all).

Although I cannot speak to the single player balancing, the game plays nicely for two.  It is not too difficult, but you will definitely die if you make tactical mistakes like running into three hard-hitting mobs without a stun ability or potion ready.  The final battle with the Skeleton King is typical Diablo, helter skelter running all over a room killing added mobs while getting in some hits against the boss and slowly bringing him down.

What strikes me most about the gameplay is what I started with: at least in the beginning of the game, this appears to be a reskinning of the known Diablo II formula.  Not much added, but that may be what players are yearning for after 12 years.

The story of the beta is simple: find Deckard Cain, and once you do, take out the Skeleton King that was harassing him.  This small dose of story stands on its own and comes to a satisfying conclusion.  That's good and bad.  Good because it makes you feel like you accomplished something meaningful in the beta.  Bad because for players like me on the fence, there was no hook such as a cliffhanger that left you wanting to continue the story.

Of course, the actual story or lore in Diablo never seemed as important as those in Warcraft or Starcraft.  Devil comes out, hell breaks loose, you banish it back to hell.  Blah blah blah.  How you get from meeting Deckard Cain to defeating the devil...well, hopefully there's enough story there for those who want it.  But there's little indication from the beta that you will actually care about the world.  Where's the next zombie or skeleton?  Click-click-click...

In summary, if you've been hoping for Acts 6-10 of the well-known Diablo story and game play, then this game will deliver exactly what you expect.  It will also do so in a graphically more pleasing manner than a decade ago.

But if you were hoping for a step forward in the franchise to something more, then you will be sorely disappointed.  This is same old Diablo, and it should certainly be a good experience for those who enjoyed Diablo II.

Bottom line: if you have a chance to play through the relatively short beta this weekend, I recommend giving it a shot.  Especially if you can find a friend or two to play with.  Beyond that, I personally would not recommend Diablo III unless you really enjoy the click-click-click and hack and slash fun of this beta.

Of course, my group of friends may still drag me, kicking and screaming, into hell so we can banish the devil back to hell.  Aww hell, why not?

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